Sometimes, we take simple issues and overthink them, making them infinitely more difficult than they need to be. The action of casting a vote is a case in point.
There’s nothing complicated about this process, but a frequent lament in the United States is the low voter turnout and the casualness in which too many Americans treat what is each citizen’s civic duty and sacred obligation.
One of the most powerful images I remember vividly comes from the South African elections in 1994 when South Africans of every hue and ethnicity were allowed to vote for the first time. Civil rights icon and hero Nelson Mandela — who in 1990 had been released from prison after 27 years for opposing the white minority government — was running to become president. I recall photos of jubilant and jovial South Africans in long, serpentine but orderly lines, waiting patiently all day in some cases, to cast their votes. After decades of being denied the right to vote by successive apartheid governments, and after a cynical and sinister campaign to mute, co-opt, murder and otherwise silence the black majority, on this day, black South Africans would not be denied.
It was exhilarating to watch democracy play out, to see ordinary people shrug off a painful, bloody past, grab hold of a lever of power and press their own imprints on their futures.
Subsequently, as I’ve watched elections in this country roll over into each cycle, I really wish that what I saw in 1994 was commonplace, that Americans in general, and African-Americans in particular, were more animated around elections and more involved. The data shows that voter turnout in America is woefully low. By one estimate, the U.S. turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 53.6 percent or 129.1 million people voting out of about 240 million eligible voters. When compared to recent national elections in other countries, those with the highest turnout rates were Belgium (87.2 percent), Turkey (84.3 percent) and Sweden (82.6 percent) which shows that we have work to do.
There are eerie parallels between what black South Africans experienced and what the ancestors of Africans in America endured. Each group was confronted by apartheid, which translates to “separation” or “being apart.” Whites in control enforced the partition of blacks in both countries using brute force, violence and laws to deny those with darker skins the right to an education, restricting where they could live, who they could associate with, their access to jobs and quality educations, limiting their movements and also denying them the right to vote.
Much of the actions undertaken by the white ruling class after enslaved Africans in the U.S. were set free in 1865 is rooted in fear. Whites, apprehensive of the power of the black vote that came during Reconstruction, sought to crush the social, economic and political power of newly freed African-Americans. Jim Crow and de jure segregation ensured that through laws, threats and aggression, African-Americans were caged, contained and controlled. Poll taxes, literacy tests, trick questions and a host of other techniques were used to block almost all blacks in the South from voting. And this doesn’t even include the lynchings, beatings, intimidation and African-Americans and their allies being driven out of communities for daring to advocate for the right of blacks to vote.
One example of the effectiveness of these measures is Louisiana where more than 130,000 blacks were registered to vote in 1896 but by 1904, a mere 1,342 were left on the rolls.
Given this bitter history, every eligible African-American should, like their South African counterparts, vote at any cost. For us, the right to vote is steeped in blood, anguish and heartache. But ours is a voting rights struggle that is also wrapped in the flag, suffused in and centered around the Constitution and illustrates our urgent desire to become full citizens in the United States. When we find excuses not to vote, and opt out of learning about the issues and the candidates so that we can make intelligent electoral choices, we dishonor our ancestors and others who fought and died so that we could exercise our electoral rights.
And when we skip our civic duty, we hand over a vital element of our freedom to others and give away our sacred birthright. This election in November — more than others in recent memory — illustrates with startling clarity to African-Americans what’s at stake. It also demonstrates what inaction on our part can produce.
Let’s not waste this golden opportunity. Let’s flex our political muscle and shake up the political environment. The truth is, if you don’t vote, don’t complain. Don’t let this be you on Nov. 9, 2016.
George H. Lambert Jr. is the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.